When I was in college in the early 1980s I was an intern at the 24th Precinct of the New York Police Department. The 24th is on the upper West Side of Manhattan, between Central Park and the Hudson River and its runs from 110th St. and Harlem in the north to 86th St. in the south. Then and now it had some of everything socio-economically speaking, the highest of high rent buildings and low rent housing developments.
Back then crime was still enough of a problem New York didn’t have the luxury of arguing over what size soda you could buy. The dangerous parts of the two-four were pretty dangerous and even in the up-scale parts it made sense to be a little nervous if you were out at night.
One day as I headed in to the well-worn precinct house, the top news story in the papers and on TV was the murder the night before of a young women, a recent graduate from Columbia University, in mid-town. I don’t remember all the details of her death but it was a particularly vicious one. The amount of coverage it was getting disturbed me, though, and I asked the sergeant I was working for what he thought about this.
He shrugged a little and said he didn’t know but what he did know was the night before a woman of about the same age died when she was thrown from the roof of one of the housing projects in the 24th. I looked carefully through the papers for the day and was unable to find any mention this.
One of the women who died was white, the other was African-American. I leave it to you to figure out which one was the victim of which crime.
This all came to mind when I read a story on The Blackstonian website about the number of people shot in Boston since the Marathon bombings. From April 15 to May 1, at least 16 people in the city were victims of gunfire, three of them died. None of these crimes were in any danger of being the top story in our news outlets. Most, and I suspect all, got at most a small mention on TV and in the papers. All except one took place in the minority heavy neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, Roslindale or the not-as-yet-gentrified end of the South End which abuts Roxbury. The one exception was in a housing development in Brighton.
There is no doubt the Marathon bombings were a huge and devastating event which deserves all the attention, outrage and grief it has received. Four people died and nearly 300 people were injured – in many cases severely – as a result of the bombs and the people who set them. Mayor Menino, Gov. Patrick and President Obama have lead a chorus of people urging all of us to be strong and come together to deal with this tragedy. Businesses and individuals from around the world have demonstrated their concern and compassion in many ways, not the least of which is the more than $26 million donated to the Boston One Fund which will be used to aid victims of the bombings and their families. This is a good, generous and wonderful thing.
There have been other days in Boston when three or four people were murdered. Mostly these were in Roxbury, Dorchester, Roslindale or Mattapan. There was some public outrage – especially if one of the victims was very young or very old – and the mayor, the rest of the city government and civic and business leaders provided help and took whatever steps possible to prevent it from happening again. This is how we got the Boston Miracle which has seen the city’s homicide rate go from 150 a year in the early 1990s to around 50 a year today. It’s still too high, of course, and it’s also still a great improvement. What remains, unfortunately, is not: If “only” one or two people are murdered, and the victims aren’t a school child or grandparent, then the story is relegated to the back pages of the city’s consciousness.
I’ve been one of the people who decided these deaths weren’t as important as other deaths. I was a city editor at The Boston Herald in the early ‘90s and when a killing happened in one of these neighborhoods I would tell the reporter to give me a paragraph or two and put it in the briefs section of the paper.
Why? Because I was unthinking and uncaring. I didn’t stop and think about why newspapers and TV did this. I didn’t question it. I didn’t think that these were people whose lives were being destroyed. They were a story and I gauged the newsworthiness of the story by its novelty – did it stand out in some way from the rest of the news? There is no excuse for this.
Boston is not unique in this respect. I could just as well be describing any major city in the nation. You could blame the media for not giving the stories more play. Or you could blame the people outside of the affected neighborhoods who don’t seem to care. The truth is likely both.
We have come to accept these deaths and injuries as normal because they take place somewhere we have designated as it being OK for them to happen. These crimes are not important enough to warrant a special response. There is no special fund or outpouring of concern for the 16 people shot in the two weeks following the bombings, although it is likely they also need extra help to recover from their traumas and go on with their lives.
What is the difference between those devastated by the bombings and those devastated by gun fire? I will leave that to you to figure out.